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Opinion: For women of color, breastfeeding can involve confronting history, obstacles and scarce resources

Aug. 25-31 is Black Breastfeeding Week, helping mothers provide the best “first food” to their newborns

In popular ’80s Bollywood movies, fights between heroes and villains often included this bit of dialogue: “Maa ka doodh pee haa!

Literally, that translates to “Have you drank your mother’s milk?” Figuratively, it deems opponents as equals if they derive strength from breastmilk.

Sonal Patel, MD

Growing up, I knew I’d breastfeed my babies. I wanted to equip them with my breastmilk that Bollywood, the world’s largest film producer, had declared a superpower. I wanted them to have the ability to jump over buildings, defeat 10 villains, and be celebrated as heroes, if the occasion ever arose.

As a pediatrician and neonatologist, I wondered why it would be beneficial to set aside a week to pay special attention to breastfeeding. The medical field was just beginning to pay attention to breastfeeding when I began training as a physician in 2003. Clinics and hospitals were hiring specialized lactation staff, maintaining banks of quality-controlled donor milk, and providing designated breastfeeding rooms for staff. Until I had my own babies, I was unaware of breastfeeding’s many culture-related challenges.

My Indian culture supports breastfeeding. Interestingly, Indian culture also promotes covering up with a sari, shawl or scarf while breastfeeding in public. So although I viewed that as the norm and was comfortable covering up, my lactation specialist, who is white, considered it suppressive. My white contemporaries wished I had a choice, not realizing I based my decision on my beliefs. What mattered to me, even more than representation, was understanding and respect in the context of my background.

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In a similar way, Black Breastfeeding Week, which starts today and continues through Aug. 31, highlights the voices of that community and puts them in a cultural context. Three women — Anayah Sangodele-Ayoka, Kiddada Green, and Kimberly Seals Allers — launched the observance in 2013. For the past eight years, they’ve used the week to spotlight historical influences, combat stereotypes, and publicize breastfeeding resources for women of color.

Historically, black women were forced to serve as wet nurses, nurturing white babies often to the detriment of their own children. The black community ended up propagating that stereotype, leading to recurrent absence of generational support for breastfeeding. A lack of role models in homes and medical settings further contributes to the belief that black women don’t breastfeed. Plus, the lactation field is predominantly white, and though these professionals may be well-intentioned, they aren’t always aware of cultural sensitivities.

All these factors add up to inadequate guidance and resources for black mothers. And when they end up struggling with breastfeeding, their babies often face physical challenges. Black infants die at almost twice the rate of white infants, yet maternity wards tend to offer black women formula rather than lactation support. Increased breastfeeding among black mothers could decrease infant mortality rates by as much as 50%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Other CDC data reveals that, among all infants born in 2015, 58% of black newborns were breastfed, compared to 73% of white newborns. By age six months, the rates were 45% and 62%, respectively.

Research proves that breastfeeding has many benefits, including:

  • Lower infant-mortality rates
  • Lower risk of the mother developing breast and ovarian cancer
  • Lower risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome
  • Lower risk of childhood obesity
  • Stronger infant immune systems
  • Higher cost-efficiency than buying formula

With lower breastfeeding rates among black women, it’s not surprising that black infants and children suffer from more upper respiratory infections, asthma, Type II diabetes, SIDS, and childhood obesity than white children. Breastfeeding can help prevent all these conditions!

Although breastmilk has been shown to be the best “first food” for infants, communities of color often face obstacles to providing that healthy start. Many communities of color live in food deserts, where the availability of fresh, healthy, affordable food is limited. When combined with limited transportation options to reach medical care and education services, living in food deserts means black mothers end up consuming more fast food and processed food.

“Women need more than their actual physical breasts to breastfeed. They need support,” Kimberly Seal Allers told NPR in 2013. “They need the infrastructure there to help them do so, and so many communities lack this basic infrastructure.”

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to underscore health and health-care disparities among communities of color. The Surgeon General in 2011 issued a Call to Action to community- and peer-based breastfeeding support programs; the pandemic has thwarted these interventions.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Black Breastfeeding Week is an answer to the tumultuous history, the continuing socioeconomic challenges, and the scarce resources. It raises awareness of breastmilk’s health benefits, empowers black women to openly breastfeed, and changes dialogue and perceptions. Breastfeeding directly benefits black infants, black mothers and entire communities. Because of the positive health impacts, supporting breastfeeding for black moms and infants truly becomes, as Allers has said, a life-or-death matter.

How can you be an advocate? It can be as simple as sharing this post on social media. Acknowledging the reasons for Black Breastfeeding Week helps increase awareness. Visit blackbreastfeedingweek.org to find valuable information and local coalitions near you.

All babies deserve to be armed with the superpower of breastmilk. After all, someday they may need to jump over tall buildings, defeat 20 villains simultaneously, and then burst out in song and dance, riding into the sunset as heroes.


Sonal Patel, MD, of Golden, is a pediatrician and neonatologist. She is founder and CEO of Nayacare


The Colorado Sun is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not reflect the opinions of the newsroom. Read our ethics policy for more on The Sun’s opinion policy and submit columns, suggest writers or give feedback at opinion@coloradosun.com.


The Colorado Sun is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not reflect the opinions of the newsroom. Read our ethics policy for more on The Sun’s opinion policy and submit columns, suggested writers and more to opinion@coloradosun.com

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